Testing, testing

On September 6, I wrote about radical acceptance and the peace I think it’s giving me. Maybe the universe thought I needed to be tested on this, or simply brought down a peg or two.

I don’t really think that. I don’t believe things work that way. But if they did, I’d tell myself that maybe that’s the reason the blows started coming fast and furious in the days since.

The fires and the 10 or so days of unhealthy air quality, some so toxic they were literally off the chart. The pain and struggle of so many colleague friends as we attempt to provide quality distance learning while managing grief over all that we’ve lost in our work with children, as well as that of so many friends supporting their children’s engagement with distance learning. Signs of continued (likely increasing) instability in the district I work for. My daughter’s work visa from Sweden finally coming through, which means that in weeks she will be leaving to live half-way around the world, with the hope of permanently making her life there. A jump in Rocky’s decline that’s forcing me to think long and hard about what’s best for him now, what constitutes “quality of life.” The return of insomnia and migraine. The continuation of our bungled response to the pandemic (hey, remember the pandemic?) that puts so many people (more than 40% of school workers, for example) in significant danger.

And then Ruth Bader Ginsberg died.

I sat on my couch on Friday afternoon, minutes after learning about Ginsberg’s death and seeing that McConnell had already put out a statement about how her seat will be filled before the end of Trump’s term, holding Rocky who had required holding all day, my head dull and achey because I’d worked all day on computer screens while nursing a migraine hangover, looking out to still-hazy air, thinking of all the people I love (including myself) who could lose rights and protections so hard-won, and of the absence that will soon, again, fill my home, an absence that will be caused in part by my daughter’s not unreasonable assessment that she can make a better future for herself in a different country, and of how I really want Rocky to be able to hang on until after his girl leaves but I don’t know if he can or if I should let him, and I could do nothing but sit and cry.

Things are terrible.

I look back at early 2016 me, who could see the possibility of what was coming (but tempered her words because she hoped that she was over-reacting) and somehow, naively, thought that civil dialogue could save us. 2016 me was kinda sweet in her hope and good intentions, and I regard her with some tenderness, but she was foolish and in denial, which made her unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.

We need to see clearly. We need to accept what is happening, what’s been happening–not just in the last two weeks or four years, but always.

When the rain came on Friday all I could see in my social media feeds were expressions of joy–which I get–but the air quality was still unhealthy. I was happy to see the rain, too, and grateful for the relief it was bringing, but the air quality was still unhealthy. We still could not safely go outside, and all I could see in all of us was how quickly and easily we’d become accustomed to a terrible new normal and how that made us nearly giddy for something that was still bad but not so terribly bad.

I want more than that for all of us.

We must see clearly, which means acknowledging contradictory truths: Yes, it was great that the air was better AND it was true that it was still not good. Since Friday morning, the rain has washed away the smoke and as I write these words, the air is now safe again. But we aren’t. The underlying causes of so many recent tragedies that seem beyond our control (fire, hurricane, derecho, pandemic deaths, continued injustices of all kinds that result in death) haven’t moved, and so we will return to them again and again and again until we address those causes.

This isn’t just about air quality. I suspect you know that, but I need to make sure that I am clear.

We need to grieve. We need to mourn. We need to cry because crying is part of accepting that things are terrible and we need to accept that things are terrible. Crying and feeling pain are not contradictory to radical acceptance. I think it’s essential to it, and our attempts to numb ourselves from pain is part of our undoing.

As news of Ginsberg’s death moved swiftly on Friday, I saw a slew of reactions along lines I’ve come to expect in the aftermath of any perceived political threat: “Of course they can’t fill her seat until we have a new President!” (Yes, they can, if enough Republican senators toe the party line, which they have done unfailingly for the past nearly four years.) “Now we really have to get out the vote!” (Sure, of course, but with respect to the question of the Supreme Court in general and Ginsberg’s seat in particular, that ship really left the dock in 2016.) Inspirational memes about coming back to fight another day. (Without any acknowledgement of how unfair the fight is, or how the unwritten but fundamental rules of engagement have changed, or how losing this fight might make future fights almost impossible to win.)

Initially these responses filled me with frustration because they remind me of 2016 me and because I cannot understand how anyone paying real attention now can think any of those responses are grounded in reality. Later, they filled me with sadness because that is just where a lot of people are, and it’s how they hang onto hope, and I have to accept that reality, too.

Please don’t misunderstand. I know that hope is crucial and that we are truly doomed if we all lose it, but it needs to be a critical hope. Our hope needs to be grounded in what is actually true right now today, not in what used to be true or what we wish or believe to be true–which means facing and feeling our sorrow and fear rather than pushing them away with half-truths that make us feel better. We need to accept the contradictory truths that things are terrible and that hope is reasonable so that we will take actions that might actually make a damn difference in our fight to make a better world, one in which we can all live and work without threat of death and raise children who believe they can make good lives for themselves on the soil from which they sprang.

(If you read only one link in this post, please make it this one: Why Critical Hope May Be the Resource Kids Most Need from Their Teachers. Plenty of wisdom in it for all of us, not just teachers and kids.)

Working from home with my old friend on Friday afternoon.

Smoke gets in your eyes

Question:
What the hell is going on?

Answer:
A. Climate change.

B. Forest mismanagement.

C. Irresponsible and/or malicious humans.

The answer is D, all of the above.

Our increasing inability to accept complexity and reject singular narratives is going to be the death of us.

(Still waiting on some rain.)

On fire in the eye of a hurricane

The photos started showing up in my feed late Monday, neighborhoods shrouded in what looked like dark yellow fog. As the days have gone on, the photos have turned darker and darker, orange skies and thicker and thicker fog that wasn’t fog, but smoke. I tried to take my own photo, but I couldn’t capture it, the eeriness of the light.

It is getting harder and harder for me to hold up my end of the continual conversation I’m having with my daughter in which I argue that it is reasonable for her to have hope for her future.

The winds picked up on Tuesday, hot and strident. Wednesday I had to clear the driveway of branches before I could back the car out to drive my daughter to her new job. She’s supervising two kindergartners and a preschooler while their moms work from home, supporting their online school and keeping them safe. I’m glad she was able to graduate without student loan debt.

Thursday morning the vast expanse of dead lawn in my backyard was littered with leaves and branches. I noticed my neighbor watering his, and I figured I should do the same thing, though it felt like a futile sort of gesture.

I started sprinklers in the morning, picked up the kitchen, and got to work in my home office. I’ve settled into our not-normal new normal. I’ve been relishing what feels like an almost eerie calm these past few weeks. I had a little hiccup the first day or two back, but other than that I’ve been calm like I’ve never been calm in my life. Things that would have set my teeth grinding and my insomnia flaring in earlier years have rolled right off me.

Those things just don’t matter any more.

I mean, I suppose they do. Or they never did. Hard to say. They just don’t matter right now, though.

By Thursday afternoon my house was filled with smoke. My nostrils were parched, and my head felt not achey, but heavy. My eyes wanted to stay closed.

I am not in an evacuation zone, not even level one, but they aren’t far from me. If I lived in my old neighborhood on the mountain–the one in which my children grew through a nearly idyllic childhood, in what I presumed was likely the precursor to a similarly charmed adult life–I would have my car packed with all the things they recommend we pack, ready to go. Or, like some of my old neighbors, I might already be gone, unwilling to risk getting trapped in traffic on the highway that becomes choked with cars at the beginning and end of every three-day weekend.

By Thursday afternoon, I had to concede that our not-normal new-normal was no longer normal. Our school buildings were closing because of poor air quality and the numbers of staff who were in the process of evacuating their homes. Chromebook distribution would have to wait for another day.

And still, I felt calm.

I had a conversation with an old friend, and we talked about evacuation plans, our children’s futures, whether or not we should buy guns and learn how to use them.

If you’d told me even ten years ago that I would think seriously about buying a gun I’d have told you to shoot me now. That I would never want to live in a world where I’d find myself thinking seriously about whether or not I should buy a gun.

But Thursday was the day rumors started to fly that the wildfires in Oregon were set by antifa and BLM supporters (spread by far-right talk radio and dubious web sites and hordes of ignorant, scared people), and I read from a valid news source that our country’s vice president was planning to address a meeting of QAnon supporters as a campaign event, and my house filled with smoke, and our already-closed schools closed more, and it felt like a reasonable conversation to be happening.

“It’s not like I feel like I need one now,” I said to L. “But I don’t think we should wait until we feel like we need to do some things. I think if we wait until then, it might be too late.”

The first thought that came into my head upon waking Thursday morning was that I should photograph everything in the house that I might want to submit in an insurance claim, if we had to leave and the house burned. I know my house isn’t going to burn now, but that seems like it might be a good thing to have.

Still, I felt calm. I still feel calm.

I think Thursday was the day I went over an edge I’d been getting closer and closer to. It might have happened after I dropped my daughter off at work and drove down a street and noticed that the line of tents camped along it had grown over the past few days. Two years ago we reported such camps to some agency, and a few days later we’d see them disappear. Now I can’t remember how long they’ve been permanently there. They are everywhere, modern-day Hoovervilles.

“I think,” I said to L., “that whoever gets to look back on this year will see it as a turning point, the time in which a fundamental shift happened. I don’t think we are ever going to go back to what we think of as normal.”

Some day, if I get to be far enough away to look back, I might pinpoint the Thursday of my second week back to school in 2020 as the day I realized that all of the not-normal is the new normal. Not just wondered if it was, but accepted it, all of it: extreme weather, dangerous divisiveness, failing societal systems, rampant ignorance, growing inequality of all kinds, fear as a thrumming undercurrent of public life.

I’ve never been in a hurricane (yet), so I don’t really know what one is like, but I wonder if, the past few weeks, I’ve been hanging out in the eye of one. I know uprooted things are swirling all around me, just out of view, but I am in a calm place. I made pizza Thursday night and we watched the crime procedural my daughter is currently binging, and I knew that others I know were packing up or already gone from their homes and that whole towns have already burned to the ground, but we had a pleasant-enough evening.

I have been curious about this calm I seem to be floating in. I’ve been wondering about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I wonder how much of my struggle in life has come from writhing around at the top of his pyramid, scratching to gain a foothold in self-actualization.

Self-actualization feels like a luxury these days. I am so damn grateful to feel and be secure right now in the middle of his triangle, grateful for love and belonging, knowing that I am safe and do not (today) have to worry about food and shelter. All of my thoughts these days are focused on love and belonging, identifying my people and keeping them close and caring for them. (But I’m keeping an eye on those more fundamental needs. Wouldn’t it be folly not to?) I miss taking for granted that those things were a given. Maybe, when I look back on this Thursday of the second week of the 20-21 school year, I will realize that what I accepted is that nothing is a given. What I accepted is knowing that it never was, and that I have been living most of my life in a beautiful illusion.

I never watched The Matrix. My children were young then, and the one time I tried to watch it I fell asleep. I know there’s something about a red pill and a blue pill, though, and one shows you reality and the other allows you to remain in some kind of ignorant (but controlled) bliss. Perhaps I’ll look back on this Thursday as the day I swallowed not a red pill or a blue one, but an orange one.

Perhaps the orange pill is the one we’ll need to have some hope for our collective future–one that allows us to see clearly and accept what we are seeing.

I don’t really know, and I’m out of time to ponder it. As my employer told me, school offices are closed, but we are expected to work from home and contact HR if we need to use any leave to deal with evacuation or fire issues. Time to get on with it.

Complex radical something, in simple terms

As I returned to work this past week, I thought I was the only one crying every day.

Turns out I wasn’t.

Do you know how many different types of grief there are? There are a lot. Complicated, anticipatory, chronic, delayed, distorted, secondary, masked, collective. Oh, and normal. (There’s more, but I got tired of typing them. Grief is tiring.)

I found lists of types of grief when I went looking for information about “complex grief”–a term I thought I’d read somewhere along the way–but that seems to be the same as “complicated grief,” which is what mental health professionals use for grief so long-lasting and severe that it interferes with normal functioning.

I didn’t find a word for the kind I’ve been seeing and feeling, not just at work but all around me. I wanted a word for the grief that comes from bearing witness to all the varied types of grief being carried in those surrounding you, while carrying your own, while still carrying on with what is expected of you. If there were, I suspect a lot of us would be suffering from it.

I spent too much time on Friday and Saturday trying to write about this, but the draft I labored over has too many words. They exhaust me. (I took a long, deep nap on Saturday afternoon.)

The grief isn’t just about schools and teaching. It’s not just about the pandemic. It’s all of it, the whole big ball of change and instability.

Friday night I watched a pre-2010 romcom, something I’ve been doing throughout this summer. These movies fill me with nostalgia for a pre-smartphone world. They fill me with nostalgia for a time when I took for granted things I didn’t even know I had, that I now know the contours of through the spaces made by their absence. I see many of those things in the subtext of these movies that are silly and unrealistic and fun and oblivious to so many, many things. (They are a lot like pre-2010 me.)

I watch them to escape. I watch them also to ground myself in what’s real now. I watch the beautiful (almost always white) actors and actresses (can we still use “actress”? probably not) who were born in the same decade I was dance their way through familiar cinematic choreography, and, in the cases when something in the plot hinges on communication that is not face-to-face, send an email or whip out a flip-phone and talk, and I cannot pretend that we are not now living in a fundamentally different time. The things that were so vitally important to them! The sources of their anguish! While watching, I usually Google the cast of the movie so I can see what they look like now. They almost all look old now in the ways I do, their beauty fading or faded. (My god, we were so beautiful! Why can’t we see, when we are young, how beautiful we are?) On my phone I see the physical manifestation of time passed, which grounds me in the truth that the era in which those movies were made and made sense is not the one in which I’m currently living.

I think the romcoms are part of my attempt to embrace radical acceptance. The opposite of radical acceptance is denial, and that’s a road I’ve followed to far more poor life choices than I’d like to admit.

Radical acceptance of the world we’re living in now is painful, but not as painful as it is to fight the world as though we’re still living in the one we once had (or thought we did).

Radical acceptance is bringing me a kind of peace and calm I’ve never experienced before.

Peace and calm does not mean I’m OK. It does not mean I’m happy. It does not mean I am without pain. (It comes with pain, but the right kind.)

It does mean I am no longer beating my head against walls that will not be moved by my brain splatter.

Radical acceptance might look like defeat, but I’m finding it brings a different kind of power that is keeping me in the fight.

On the last day of the first week of my return to school/work, I didn’t cry once. This felt like progress. Educator friends and I posted funnynotfunny comments on FB about using crying as a metric in setting our annual professional goals.

This is how we are going to get through. Community. Empathy. Humor. Truth-telling. It’s how people have always gotten through hard times, though some of us have lived such fortunate lives thus far that we haven’t had to learn that until now.

My colleague friends and I will all write official goals that won’t matter much to the real work we’ll be doing this year. That we’ll have to do that doesn’t really matter. What matters is creating real strategies for meeting this time we’re in.

There’s a lot I don’t know any more, but these are my goals, driven not by any set of data but by what I need to do good for those I serve:

Know what’s true.

Own my truth.

Take care of myself.

Love my people.

That’s it. It’s enough.

New year’s resolutions

Recently, I read Courtney Carver’s Project 333: The Minimalist Fashion Challenge That Proves Less Really Is So Much More. If you’ve been with me since way way back (2010, probably), you might remember when I first tried Project 333, in which you chose only 33 items of clothing to wear for 3 months. It’s a project/challenge that dramatically changed my relationship with clothing and shopping for clothing (and other stuff, too). I highly recommend it.

Clicking on one of the links in the book took me to The Renewal Workshop, a company that takes old clothing from partner companies and refreshes it for resell. Clicking around on their site, I found a statement about their company values (here and here), and how they try to use those to guide their work.

Organizational values isn’t a new concept, and I’ve participated in the crafting of more missions/vision/values statements than I care to recall. However, I do know that when these documents are actively used in decision-making, they can be powerful. And powerful is something I’m longing to feel these days.

For most of the summer, I’ve been dreading the return to work. I have felt powerless and hopeless and probably about 10 other kinds of -less. Deciding to renovate my home office (which I mentioned here) was a small step to reclaiming some power and agency.

As I’ve worked in the room, making decisions about what to include and what to leave out, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of having a set of guiding values, and how I can have visual reminders of them in this space.

Connection

That’s my grandmother at 12, and also at 76 (at my wedding reception). As you might be able to infer, she was a bit of a pistol. When I was growing up, I thought she was the most social person I knew. She always had people around, and she was always doing something fun. She seemed happiest at the center of our large pack of family. Although I adored her, I didn’t think we were much alike.

What I’ve realized, now that I am as old as she was when I first knew her, is that she was, perhaps, as introverted as I am. And that I love my people as deeply as she did, even if I express it differently. What I knew, growing up, was that if I ever needed a place to go, she would take me in. I–and anyone I brought with me–would always be welcome. She was our connector and our safety net.

Probably because I am highly introverted, I don’t have a wide circle of people. But the people I have matter more than anything else to me. Many are family, and some are friends. Some are people I work with. I want fostering and caring for meaningful connection to be at the center of my life. Because I am introverted and my job requires a lot of interaction with others, this can be a challenge for me, but as I enter a new school year I want to place connection with others at the center of my decision making. I want to think about who and what I am saying yes and no to in the choices I make, and which choices will allow me to strengthen valuable connections with others. I want the people I love to know me as someone who will always take them in.

Stewardship

This is a value I have struggled to live by. Living when, where, and how I have, I’ve learned that it is easy to throw things away. To care for them carelessly, knowing that cheap replacements are readily available. For a whole host of reasons, I don’t want that kind of relationship with resources. Instead, I want to care well for the people and things that are mine to care for.

This is from a quilt that was pieced hand-stitched by my great-grandmother. She came to this country from Germany in the early 1900’s. When I look at this quilt, it’s clear to me that she used what she had, that she didn’t have much, and that she also took care to arrange her materials as pleasingly as she was able. I can see attention to line and color. I see craftsmanship and labor. It an unfinished piece—there is no batting in it. I long thought I would finish it and use it, but I don’t want to destroy it, and honestly, it is too fragile to use as a blanket.

Part of good stewardship, I think, is determining how to use things. Simply preserving them isn’t enough, and in my line of work (library services), particularly, there is often tension between using and preserving. This unfinished quilt is my great-grandmother’s art, and I don’t think art should sit hidden in drawers. What use can it serve there? I know that displaying it, where it will be exposed to light and dust, will shorten its life, but I did some research on how to display quilts in ways that minimize damage to them. I think hanging it here, as it is, strikes the right balance between using and preserving.

This, I think, is how to be a good steward of the resources (things, people, time, money) entrusted to me: seeing value, considering purposes and uses, and finding solutions to maximize benefits and minimize costs.

Health

Health is the foundation of everything, right? Without physical, mental, emotional, and social health, we cannot do and be all that we might. In its extreme, we cannot live.

The larger plant I’ve placed on my desk is a peace lily. The first time I married, a friend gave me one as a gift. She said it was the perfect symbol for marriage: a plant that produces beautiful blooms, thrives in multiple conditions, and withstands drought. I want a healthier marriage with work. I want to be more like a peace lily. I hope the need to care, in the most concrete of ways, for the health of other living things, will remind me to value the health of myself and others in the choices I make about how to work.

Creativity

I believe that we are all creative beings and need positive outlets for making and doing. I believe there is value in creating for the sake of creating—both for the creator and for those around them. When we cannot create, our health and relationships suffer. Creativity helps us find solutions and solve problems and see possibilities. Creativity is joy, and we need joy as much as we need love and safety. It’s not a frill, an extra, or a nice-to-have. It’s essential, especially in times such as the one we are living through.

I have adorned the walls with art made by those I love most (including me!), and my favorites are the ones my children made when they were young. Many (all?) of us are born artists (a term I’m using very loosely), but the world has a way of killing that part of us. I want to make time for creativity in my life and work, and I want to protect and support it for the children and adults I serve.

Boundaries

As a life-long people-pleaser and do-gooder, developing, communicating, and living by boundaries is an on-going challenge. When we suddenly shifted to working from home last spring, I worked all over my house, and I came to realize that it wasn’t good for me. Home had once been a sanctuary from work, a place where work wasn’t. And then work was everywhere, all the time. Home lost some of its meaning for me.

I’m appreciating the opportunity to work toward better integration of work and home. I don’t want work to be something so depleting that I need a completely separate place to recover from it. Because of working from home, I can no longer use that strategy (which, as longtime readers here know, wasn’t really working for me, anyway). Setting better boundaries is the way to do that. This year, I plan to limit work to this one room with a door. To help me remember the upside of boundaries–that they protect us and those around us, spur creativity, and allow us to say “yes” to the people and projects that align with our values–I painted the closet door pink. Color is fun! Boundaries, done right, allow for more fun, and a lot of other good stuff, too. (Also, too much white is boring and sterile.)

Space

White space is an important design principle. It helps us see what’s important. Space is the yin to connection’s yang. Both are necessary in our work. I need space to be healthy, to create, to care for people and things; without those things, connection isn’t really possible.

When I left work in March, I left a desk full of clutter–papers, stacks of books, a bag of Valentine’s Day treats, and more. It’s all still there. Clearly, I didn’t really need all of that stuff to do my job. This week, I went back to my office to get the things I’ll want or need to work from home. The things I felt I’d really need fit into one box.

To renovate this room, I first cleared everything out of it, so that I could be purposeful about what I allowed back in.

Deciding what to bring back and what to release was hard! It wasn’t the practical stuff that tripped me up. It was all the meaningful stuff–photos, family things, art. It was a good exercise, though, to really think about what matters.

The pandemic, in its (horrible, hard, often cruel) way, is providing a similar kind of clearing out. So many things that filled my work hours have been stripped away. Of course, I don’t have much say in some of the things that remain or that have been added, but with the things I do get to choose, I’m appreciating the opportunity to consider what needs to be part of the work and what doesn’t, and how to make space to see clearly which is which.

Light

For a few years, I taught in a cinderblock room completely surrounded by hallway, with no windows or skylights, which meant that I had no exposure to natural light during the day. So often, when I emerged from it to go home, I was surprised by the light I found; I’d have had no sense of the weather all day and felt startled, almost, if it were especially bright with sun or moody with clouds. It was terrible, being that cut off from the natural world day after day after day, especially in winter when the sun would already be setting as I walked to my car.

I painted the walls of this room white to maximize brightness. This south-facing window gets sun for much of the day. As I work this year, I want to remain light (in all senses of that word) and to seek enlightenment. I want to see things clearly, shine light on truth, and join my light with others who are doing the same. I want all of us to stop working under artificial light that keeps us out of touch with what’s really happening in the outside world.

The value of this room renovation isn’t really in the room. Sure, it’s a nice space to look at and be in, but it was the process of thinking about the room and its purposes that will mean more to me (and, I hope, others) over time.

Every year as summer wanes, I go back to work resolved to engage with it in a different way. I promise myself that I will keep getting exercise, that I will keep eating real food, that I will devote more time to what is important and less to what is urgent, that I will carve out time for friends and family and creative work, and that I will just not let it all get to me.

So far, every year, I have failed to fulfill such resolutions.

This year feels different. There are two sides to everything, and one side of this time in which so much is collapsing is fear: economic, social, physical, and political threats are all around us. On the other side, though, is opportunity. When so much is gone, changed, and changing, it is easier to let go of what was and try to figure out what can be.

What this country has been asking of its educational system and its educators has been untenable for a long time. Having that truth laid bare over the past few months has released something in me; I can no longer pretend (to myself or anyone else) that we can–or even should–do all that has been asked of us, which gives me permission to let myself off the hook for trying to.

The root cause of the failures of our educational system extend far beyond the system itself; nothing that I, personally, do is going to change or fix that. While I believe to the center of my core in the value of a strong public education system and its necessity to the well-being of our democracy and its citizens–that belief is the reason I entered the system and have never been able to leave it–I can see that the system is crumbling and all of our many band-aids are failing to save it. Coming to accept this truth has been not unlike the experience of losing faith. The despair has been real. But also: This kind of letting go feels freeing in a way that I don’t yet have words to express.

The question, then, is: What to do now? This system, flawed as it is, is the system our children have right now, today. They only have one childhood, and it is now. Many of those with means are opting their kids out of it, but many families remain. Many educators remain, too, out of our own economic necessity. What does this mean going forward, to know that vulnerable people are depending upon us in a system that is broken and we feel (probably are) powerless to fix?

It doesn’t mean that those of us who remain simply give up and go through the motions and take what we can get. I mean, it can, and I’ve certainly known educators who have chosen that route. (We’re all human. We are not heroes or saints. This is a thing humans do in response to threat, defeat, and hopelessness. They do what they have to do to survive. We should acknowledge that reality so that we can better mitigate it.)

For me, it means focusing on what agency I have and exercising it. I am under no illusion that this set of values I’ve laid out here is going to magically transform my life or my experiences in the coming year. I am sure the coming year will contain a good deal of struggle. But I am all out of fucks to give about some things that used to drive me: pleasing my bosses, building a career, preserving norms and “right” ways of doing things, reforming the system. Those things no longer feel relevant. That opens up a lot of space for me to choose different actions than I might have in the past, and this set of values will be the lens through which I make such choices.

I believe we are all, no matter what kind of life we’re living and what privileges we do or do not have, at a crossroad. I’m going to do my best to choose a path paved with love, for others and myself, and to be, in whatever ways I can, light and space that connects and cares for others in ways that are healthy for us all. I don’t have to save the world, but there are things I can do to make my little corner of it better than it might otherwise be. Maybe if we all did that, some of the threats barreling toward us would start to change course?

Just say no

I just deleted the Facebook app from my phone again, for the third or fourth time since March. I see that I’m not unlike a person in an abusive relationship who keeps going back because they want to believe that this time it can be different.

What I want, in this time of social isolation, is connection. Over the summer I’ve dabbled in Instagram, but I’m connected to far more people on FB, and I miss seeing their posts. So I go back. I change my rules for engagement. I set time limits. I unfollow. I’m also not unlike an alcoholic who thinks they can drink if they only drink beer and not the hard stuff, or only on the weekends, or only after 5:00.

Every time I reinstall, before too long, I’m mindlessly scrolling for too many minutes of my day (which is, you know, my life). I’m getting angry with people I don’t even know. (Too many of my friends have friends who can be real dicks.) Or about things I can’t do anything about. I’m feeling defeated and sad. (These are rational responses to the world right now–at least, they are according to the therapist I used to see, and that was before this freaking pandemic–and therefore not necessarily a reason to stay away. We should know what’s real, including how our fellow humans are seeing things and feeling about them.)

And then, something snaps and I realize I have to again cut off easy access to my abuser, to my drug, to this thing that can make me feel so shitty (about the world, my fellow humans, the future, myself) and enriches a guy who I think really doesn’t care much about anything other than making his massive fortune more massive. This time, it was a comment in response to a post about the pandemic in which an analogy was made to airline crashes and how many daily plane crashes it would take for us to have the same death toll as we currently have from Covid. A young person made a comment about how many people die of other illnesses each year and how illness and death are just part of life and how we have to accept that and get on with living.

Maybe I snapped because earlier in the day I’d had a conversation with a friend, who shared that an acquaintance who is a gerontologist and the mother of a young child recently voiced that we have our priorities all wrong because we’re not taking care of our children and our elderly have already had their lives to live and the ending of their lives would be the lesser loss. She wants her kid back in school.

Maybe I snapped because a few weeks ago, my parents and I finally agreed that we would not see each other this summer (which means not this fall/winter, either), and I’m so tired of feeling sad when I see others posting pictures of visits with their elderly parents. I thought we could visit safely if we met outside and kept our distance and wore masks, but they just didn’t want to take the risk. “We would love to see you, but we also want to protect you. We hate the idea of what you’d have to live with if one of us got sick because of seeing you. We don’t want you to have to carry that.” And, of course, they also don’t want to die a painful, protracted, and isolated death.

Jesus. Those last three sentences. This is where we are. This is where we are.

At any rate, I snapped. And deleted. And I don’t feel sad and defeated.

I feel better.

Boundaries, baby.

(Image from Courtney Carver’s bemorewithless. I like Courtney’s take on a lot of things.)

Sign me up for more time, freedom, and energy, so I can maybe do something to make this world (or, at the very least, my world) better, rather than drowning in it.

In progress

I have a “real” post somewhat almost-done for today, but I couldn’t get it actually done, any more than I could get my office renovation done by the end of the day yesterday (something I hoped on Instagram* that I’d be able to do).

Wait, scratch that: I could have gotten both done, but I made choices that kept me from getting them done.

What did I do instead?

I fell down a rabbit hole of writing–but not far enough to finish the post. I pulled myself up out of the writing hole to attend to painting chores the room requires: repainting the bottom of the open section of the cabinet we built (because we didn’t build it right the first time and had to re-build, which messed up the paint) and painting the door to the room.

I could have done/faked the room tidying I need to do to be able to finish the post (because the post is about the room, but I need some different photos than I’m able to take with it in its current state), but I decided to do the things that really need doing.

And then I spent some time gathering and delivering a bag of treats for a colleague who is home sick with Covid, taking care of her daughter who is also sick with it. I did that because one of the things I’m writing about in the in-progress post is about values I want to live by in the coming school year, and connection with others is at the top of the list. I’ve gotta tell you: Strengthening that connection felt so much better and more meaningful than having pretty office photos and a complete post would have.

After that I took a nap. I’d had a low-grade headache since Thursday, and even though it’s not the kind of headache that disables me, three days of that kind of pain takes it out of me. It makes me tired. There is something so delicious about climbing under cool covers on a sunny afternoon. That sensation might be as healing as the actual sleep. (Health is another value I want to prioritize.)

And then, well, it was time to make dinner. Time to sit at the table in the early-evening light and talk and sip while the carrots roasted. Then it was time to take a scooter ride to a nearby neighborhood where we like to walk and look at houses and study the choices those homeowners have made to help us make our own.

Photo of modest white bungalow with black flower boxes under the windows.

At that point, of course, the day was nearly done. No time for anything but watching an episode of our current series (Hanna on Prime), snuggling the dogs to sleep, doing a bit of a Times crossword, and falling back into bed.

It was a good day. Progress on multiple projects was made. As I head into my last week before returning to work, I know that I am going to end my summer with more things in progress than finished. More and more, I think that’s how it should be. I think progress, rather than accomplishments, might be the measure of a life well-lived. Isn’t a life in progress a life grounded in hope, growth, and faith? I hope, on whatever is the last day of mine, that I am still in progress, that I leave this place with work of all kinds still to be done.

*I’m just about done with Facebook. I’ve taken it off my phone again, and I’m happier for it. I’d love to see you on Instagram, if that’s a happy place for you.

Sunday brunch

No time for much of a Sunday post today. I’ve spent the last few days doing almost nothing but working on a renovation of my home office. I’ll be back to work in about two weeks, and I’ve decided that if I’m going to be working from home (and I am) that I am going to have a dedicated space (with a door that can be closed at the end of the day) and that it is going to be a nice place to spend 8 hours. So, I haven’t been writing or thinking much.

I’ve been listening to audiobooks, sanding, and painting–sometimes while carrying Rocky in his baby sling, which adds a whole new level of challenge to the enterprise.

It’s been a nice space to hang out. It faces the south and has a good-sized window. I feel fortunate to have the dedicated room and a job that will let me work from it. It has felt good to do something concrete that gets me out of my head. I’ll share pics when it’s further along.

Although it was 100 degrees here yesterday (and is supposed to be the same today), I’ve felt the turn to autumn in the mornings this week. They are chilly in a way they never are in July. This morning I got out early to pick blueberries and and tomatoes.

I planted only two tomato plants in the spring, and they’ve turned into a jungle.

This mess of plants (which includes some over-run parsley) is being held up by three cages, and today I added a piece of spare lumber to get an especially heavy section off the soil. The blue blueberries are mostly done, but the pink ones are still going strong.

I’m thinking of making a blueberry crumble tonight. This morning it was really lovely to scramble some eggs with tomato, onion, and basil–all grown in the garden. I also made a lemon blueberry bread, but it’s still cooling so I can’t tell you how it is yet.

I hope you are well. Thinking especially about my friends in the midwest who were blindsided by the derecho (a word I didn’t know until this week). Take care, wherever you are, however you can, and best wishes for a good week.

On the day I take my daughter to the airport

On the day I take my daughter to the airport, a Facebook friend posts about needing some advice on how to keep her house clean now that everyone is home all the time.

I want to tell her that she is, perhaps, asking the wrong question, but I don’t want to be one of those moms. I remember a day I stood in front of a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes in a drafty, rambling split-entry with four bedrooms and three bathrooms and two living rooms that I could never seem to get entirely clean at the same moment and wishing I could just have some time to myself and a tidy home. The next moment, I told myself that there would come a day when I would have plenty of time to myself and I would long for these days with my house full of the people I love, messy as it is.

I was right.

I was also wrong, in the sense that I didn’t know how quickly the day would come, or how empty the house would feel, or that the wantings are not, in any way, really, equivalent.

On the day I take my daughter to the airport, I google “are humans pack animals.” The answers are neither satisfactory nor clear, and I decide that it doesn’t matter. I am a pack animal, and I know it.

I am also an introvert, which is not a contradiction. In fact, it may be why I need my pack the way I do. My daughter, and only a few others, are in it. We can spend whole evenings in separate rooms of the same house, but it is an easy, companionable separation. It fills the house in the right way, and when I return home after taking her to the airport, it feels empty in a way I’d already forgotten it could be, after having her here for a few months.

On the day I take my daughter to the airport, a friend shares a photo of taking her daughter to college for the first time and I wonder if I should tell her that she might have included a trigger warning.

On the night before I take my daughter to the airport, I help her wax her legs. We watch YouTube videos about how to make a wax from sugar and lemon. Her first batch is a gooey, scorched mess that turns to rock in cold water, and I am afraid it will harden in my kitchen pipes and ruin my pan.

“Oh, never mind,” she says. “I don’t need to do this.”

“No,” I say. “Let’s try again.” I am not sure why, but I really want this to work. I want to do this thing for her, with her.

I re-watch the videos and take over the stove duty. She sits on the couch with the dogs and TikTok videos. I call progress checks to her, testing the wax every minute or so, to catch it at just the right temperature. I feel triumphant when I carry to her a small ball that molds in our fingers just like the wax in the video.

We sit in the living room together, watching Frozen while she waxes her legs, and then the end of Coco, which we’d started the night before and abandoned when I couldn’t stay awake, and then Frozen II. When she came home in May, she bought a subscription to Disney+ and rewatched every single episode of Hannah Montana while she was stuck in quarantine. From her end of the hall I’d hear, “You get the best of both worlds” over and over and over. It was an ear worm for days.

When I moved to the big house I could never get entirely clean, I canceled cable, which meant canceling the Disney channel. If I had only understood how much those shows meant to her, I would have chosen different corners to cut in the house that I couldn’t, in so many ways, afford. (I couldn’t have known then, though. Not really. Some things we can see only from a distance.)

Frozen is my choice. I think there might be something in Elsa’s story that I need to see. I want to learn how to manage things (anger, fear, grief) that so often feel unmanageable now, how to let them go without destroying everything around me. But it is the signature song of Coco that turns into an ear worm the day I take my daughter to the airport:

Remember me
Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don’t let it make you cry

On the day I take my daughter to the airport, the house’s emptiness when I return is a presence all its own. The dogs run to her bedroom door, and I open it for them.

“She’s not here,” I tell them. I lift them on to her bed, where they settle in to sleep under her covers, one curled into the other.

I think of the night before, and of how it has only been in the most recent of days that I’ve felt able to fully relax into her return home, to let myself really feel how much I love having, again, the kind of regular, everyday time we’ve been able to have, and I think of how I wish I’d been able to have a whole summer of such days.

On the day I take my daughter to the airport, I come to understand two things:

1. Today’s good-bye is a dress rehearsal. She will be back in 10 days, but the next time I take her to the airport she likely won’t be coming back in the same way ever again. She will be going to another continent to live, intending to build a life where she and I won’t share the casual intimacies of life lived together in our pack. I understand that for all our efforts to remain close during the years she was away at school, we could not maintain over time and distance the kind of bond that comes from sharing such mundane things as regular meals, informal visits, shopping and walks and boring errands, parcels of time so bountiful we can afford to waste some. We won’t have the kind of ease that comes with proximity and abundance.

2. The careful peace I constructed when she moved away the first time was a house of cards, and I need to figure out how to make a more solid structure in which to live what remains of my life.

On the day I take my daughter to the airport, I have to get out of my house filled with absence. I drive up to the mountain, to the river where I raised my children for the first half of their lives. It is not that I want to go back in time; that mountain, that river, was a place I once needed to leave, too. But sometimes, we need to go back to figure out how to move forward. I want to get grounded, literally. I want to dig my toes in the river’s sand, to let its water cool my feet. I need to see water flowing past me.

I spread a blanket in some shade, doze to the sound of children playing in the water with their mother. I sit on land one of my children once named Dogarnia, and another called The Forest of Enchanted Wieners. Rule of this kingdom was hotly contested. When I close my eyes, I can see them climbing in the trees, our tiny Dachshunds kicking up sand as they run in circles around us.

I want to call across the water to that other mother. I want to tell her: Imprint this day in your memory. Don’t worry about what you’re going to make for dinner or how you’re not getting the house clean before starting another work week. Soak yourself in these moments, right now, so that later you can remember this sun-drenched summer day when all of you were golden. But I don’t. I don’t know her life, and I don’t want to impose my reality and regrets on hers. Also, no one in the thick of it wants to hear this kind of thing from some stranger whose time has passed.

On the afternoon of the day I take my daughter to the airport, I understand another thing: My attempts to keep my house of cards intact, to keep her unexpected stay from coming in and blowing down my hard-won peace was futile and stupid. I’ve let anticipatory grief rob me of embracing all that she–and this terrible, unexpected, wonderful chance to mend and grow and be together–brings. She, like all children, was born to make and remake me, to strip me to my foundations, to give me reasons to build (and build again). I see now that I cannot protect my heart by clinging to what I constructed the first time she left. It served me well enough, I suppose, but now I need something strong enough to stand, open, both when she comes and when she goes. Because I have to let her go; that is what I was born to do.

The morning after I take my daughter to the airport, the sun is shining. I’d woken in the middle of the night, hot because I wasn’t blasting the AC the way she does, and I responded to a text she’d sent to let me know that she’d safely arrived.

“Omg go to sleep,” she’d answered. It was daytime for her, but 1:00 AM for me. I’m sure she thought I’d stayed awake waiting for her text.

At 6:30, when I wake again, I feed the dogs who, again, run to her door after eating. I lift them to her bed. “Go for it,” I tell them. They settle in, even though her body isn’t there for them to lean against. They lick her sheets, a behavior I find disgusting, but it is one she sometimes lets them do, and now I do, too. I tell myself that we all need our comforts, and I can wash them before she returns.

I go to my computer and cast lines in rivers of words, the most constant comfort I’ve ever known.

Her absence is still a presence, but I know it won’t always be so. Or, it will, but not in the same way. I have so rarely had second chances, and I know that there’s no do-over for the months we’ve shared since May. I also know that, likely, we couldn’t have lived them any other way than we have. We are who we are, each of us; ours is not a pack of easy animals. When she returns, she will be in quarantine, and then I will be returning to work. Her visa could come through at any time now, and then she’ll be gone again. She’ll be back in 10 days, but it won’t be the same. (It is never the same; isn’t every good-bye a tiny death, a rehearsal for the big show we never want to perform?)

But: The cards are flattened now, and re-building is necessity, not choice. When she comes back, I won’t give any of what I’ve still got away to the future. I’ll heed my own words to that mom at the river. When she goes again, I want to hurt for the right reasons.

Let the rain come down

Another week, another picture of fruit on the kitchen table.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m deeply grateful for these small pleasures, the fresh flavor of food grown just outside my door.

This week I’ve been grateful for laughter with my daughter, a soft morning rain, evenings filled with warm light and conversation, and a fair number of other small, vital gifts.

Still, it was a hard one. Again.

Drought-evading plants – non-succulent perennials which restrict their growth activity to periods when moisture is available. Typically, they are drought-deciduous shrubs which go dormant or die back during dry periods.

http://landau.faculty.unlv.edu//adaptations.htm#:~:text=Drought%2Devading%20plants%20%E2%80%93%20non%2D,die%20back%20during%20dry%20periods.

The particulars of my personal drought are not important; we all have circumstances that can blanch us brittle, especially now.

Standing in the shower one day this week, water streaming over my body that feels more and more foreign, a land I neither recognize nor feel at ease in, I wondered why I cannot find much interest or joy in things that once provided an abundance of both.

When our lives rest upon hardpan, there’s only a skim of earth, fingertip deep, that we can dig into with our hands. Roots find little purchase in such soil.

There are workarounds for hardpan: tools to break it loose (forks, spades, chisels), amendments that can be added.

Or, we can adapt: Go dormant and accept that we will grow and bloom only when sufficient hydration is available.

These past few weeks, I feel myself becoming sharp and prickly, my words sometimes barbed as a xerophyte’s spines. Deep, quiet anger is a constant, terrible presence threatening to scorch the earth of me.

I share with a friend my intention to shut down, conserve my resources, grow a less pervious skin, and she answers with thoughts about my integrity, a feature she considers defining.

Definition of integrity
1: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values INCORRUPTIBILITY
2: an unimpaired condition SOUNDNESS
3: the quality or state of being complete or undivided COMPLETENESS

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/integrity

Her words wash over me and tears breach the dam of my self-control.

It’s been a structure lacking integrity for weeks, allowing leaks, streams, torrents precipitated by almost nothing–a word, a flash of memory, a stray item happened upon–and it feels like such an extravagant spilling, an excess of fluid that leaves me nothing but parched.

What I would give to feel complete, incorrupt, and sound once again.

I grew on land bordered by tides, water that advanced upon and retreated from rocky beaches. Now, I live next to rivers that run in one direction past sandy banks.

I need water to be the person I think of as me.

How do we survive drought? I don’t really know. Sometimes we don’t.

Last year I planted a small hydrangea tree. It has been a gorgeous thing, full of creamy petals and vibrant, supple leaves. I love the tree, whose only purpose is to be beautiful. This week, after days of relentless heat, I realized its branches were drooping and its leaves were spotting, some turning dry and dropping.

“Nononono,” I whispered to it. “You cannot die.”

I brought out a sprinkler and soaked the bed it grows in, only then noticing how its edges had cracked and pulled away from the pavement bordering it. When did that happen? How did I let it?

We are all connected, my drought contributing to its.

What are the limits of adaptation? I’m thinking that a hydrangea cannot simply mutate into a xerophyte. But what do I know? The cactus was once a rose. Still, I think we’d all agree: A cactus is no longer a rose, which begets the question: What does it mean to survive?

I clip a branch from the hydrangea, and another from a brambly variety of rose that grows in an unruly thicket in the back corner of the yard. I put them in a vase to decorate a table for a birthday dinner. I light candles. I take pleasure in contrasts of line and color. We eat good food and have a nice time. I celebrate that I can still feel such pleasures and experience such times as much as I do the birth of the life we are honoring.

There are many things I don’t know, but I do know this: 73% of the brain and heart is water, and movement is water’s constant. Tides and currents. Evaporation and precipitation. What’s here will go, and what’s gone will come around again, in some form or another, even though we can’t step into the same river twice.